How the US missed a chance to nip the Israel-Gaza war in the bud

There are two lessons from the past that the relevant stakeholders should have heeded

Smoke rises after Israeli air strikes on northern Gaza Strip on Tuesday. EPA
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The unfolding horror in Gaza is a reminder of two important lessons that should have been heeded by Hamas, Israel and the US.

The first came from the late Ibrahim Abu Lughod, the brilliant Palestinian-American historian. He always cautioned never to make judgements based on the day’s headlines, because like the ocean’s tides or waves, they come in and go out. If we are driven by them, we are left flailing about without being grounded in reality. Rather, we should focus on the deep currents that shape the direction of events.

Using that lesson, I disagree with some experts who insist that after this Israel-Gaza War, nothing will ever be the same again. No doubt, some things will be different, but when the dust settles, no matter how much damage Israel is able to inflict on Hamas, the Palestinian people and Gaza, too many constants will remain.

In the first place, Palestinians will still be under an oppressive occupation, chafing at the way Israel controls their land and denies them freedom.

Hamas may be defeated, but out of the anger and trauma caused by this huge display of Israeli might, the seeds are being planted for Hamas 2.0 or something worse. At the same time, the already diminished Palestinian Authority will have become even more irrelevant and Palestinians, as they have been since the tragic end of Yasser Arafat, will be operating without a leadership that could actually inspire them. That unfortunately is unlikely to change.

Did the Biden administration actually believe that by giving Netanyahu full-throated support that he would act with restraint?

Israel is also unlikely to change. As it emerges from its trauma, its politics will not be more moderate. There may be less of a push for radical changes in the judiciary and fewer accommodations made for the ultra-Orthodox, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new/old partner, former defence minister Benny Gantz, is no less hardline on the Palestinian issue. In fact, Mr Gantz’s past critique of Mr Netanyahu was that he hadn’t “finished off” Hamas in the last Gaza war.

Sadly, little will anything change on the US front. While public opinion, especially among Democrats, continues to be increasingly critical of Israeli right-wing policies (and will most likely become more critical after Israel finishes bombing Gaza), the pro-Israel lobby will continue to influence elected officials in both parties. At some point, the Biden administration may decide that Israel has gone too far with its assault and press it to halt the violence, but the US shouldn’t be expected to apply the kind of pressure needed to force an end to the occupation or justice for Palestinians.

The bottom line is that because constants are unlikely to change, neither will the political realities shaping the conflict.

The second lesson comes from the famous “doctrine” attributed to Colin Powell, the former US secretary of state. He laid out a series of questions to be considered before ever engaging in a war. Among them were: Is there a clear and attainable objective? Have risks and consequences been assessed? Is there an exit strategy?

It will be recalled that the late Mr Powell tragically didn’t follow his own doctrine that led to American debacles in Afghanistan and Iraq. It’s equally clear that neither Hamas nor Israel heeded his guidance.

There are 2.3 million Palestinians in Gaza. In our most recent polling, Hamas has the support of about 20 per cent of them. If history is our guide, Israel’s assault will only make Palestinians angrier and more inclined to fight Israel, just as Hamas’s attack only gave reprieve to an unpopular Mr Netanyahu.

What then were the attainable objectives for either Hamas or Israel? Did Hamas think it would actually advance its cause? Did it believe that its butchery would end the occupation, harm the Netanyahu government, or improve its own standing among Palestinians or in the Arab world? And does Israel really believe that massacres in Gaza are going to pacify Palestinians, turning their hatred into acceptance or that they will salvage Mr Netanyahu’s electoral fortunes? And did either Israel or Hamas think of what might happen in weeks two or three of this war or what the end game might be?

One can try to understand – but never excuse – Hamas and Israel for striking out blindly. But the US needed to be more level-headed. Having seen Israel engage in similar past efforts to destroy Hamas or Hezbollah – and seen them fail – why did the US think this would be different?

Did the administration actually believe that by giving Mr Netanyahu full-throated support that he would act with restraint? Or that the resultant devastation of Gaza and killing of thousands would hasten the prospects for regional peace? And did they really believe that Israel would be any more successful in this war than it was in 2006 in Lebanon or the biannual wars with Hamas over the past 15 years, or for that matter than the US, itself, was in Afghanistan or Iraq?

It’s too late to answer these questions now. They should have been asked and answered by all parties before Hamas launched its deadly attacks, Israel embarked on its huge devastation and killing in Gaza, and the US gave Israel blank-cheque support. Now we’re left to live with the horrific consequences of everyone’s lack of discretion – the dead, the rubble, and the trauma and anger on both sides.

Published: October 17, 2023, 2:00 PM